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February 06, 2005

I'm a Garbage Collector
Sarah Kamal  [info|posts]

I'm in Kabul, Afghanistan, for a 7-month work contract on media and gender. About a month ago, I made a two-week stop in Tehran, Iran, for paperwork purposes and to revisit the Afghan refugee youth I worked with for 9 months last year. I'd like to share part of the story of those youth here.

Some background: I am a half-Chinese, half-Iranian. Iranians often mistake me for Afghan physically. I went from an undergraduate degree in Mathematics (ah, the beauty and perfection of theory!) into the gory ambiguity of media anthropology as a graduate student. It was tough to adjust, but I think that I have become a more disciplined thinker as a result of my immersion in both worlds. One of the harshest periods of my adjustment came last year, when I conducted research on the effects of long term forced migration on Afghan refugee youth in Iran. My research went well, but life wasn't kind to my young colleagues. Life was quite harsh, actually.

The research I was doing was based in an informal (read: illegal) Afghan-run school in Iran. For 20 years, the Iranian government had hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world, fluctuating between 1 to 3 million Afghans throughout the various wars in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion onwards. Pakistan hosted a similar number of Afghan refugees and received a substantial amount of international aid, but for political reasons Iran received much less external support for hosting Afghan refugees.

At various points in the last decade, Iran put pressure on its Afghan population to return to Afghanistan. Most Afghans successfully resisted the pressure to repatriate, however. Many of the Afghan youth I worked with had been born and brought up in Iran and saw only footage of ruins and devastation on the television about Afghanistan, so the thought of returning was scary. Their parents, while usually working in the low-income, informal economy as labourers or unskilled workers difficult, low-paying jobs that few Iranians would accept feared that they would remain jobless or homeless in Afghanistan, losing all the hard-earned savings they had accumulated over years of effort in Iran. So the Afghan community put up with government harassment and insults from Iranians in the street, and set up informal Afghan-funded and -run elementary and secondary schools that Afghan youth without proper refugee paperwork could attend.

I worked in one such Afghan school, and it was clearly a difficult environment to study in, being overcrowded, noisy, and dank. I became involved in setting up an extra-curricular youth club at the school, helping set up weekly meetings for discussion and problem-solving for the youth. One committee of youth became responsible for looking into creative ways of improving the school's conditions. They worked hard, setting up ceiling fans that made the heat more bearable, painting and repairing the rusty school benches, and providing ice-cold potable water to the school. The students gradually began feeling like they had more power over their environment, and their teachers noticed the change in their confidence level in classes.

One teacher asked me to help students at another Afghan school set up their own extra-curricular youth club. So I did: I went into one of the older classes and I talked about Terry Fox (a young Canadian man with cancer who ran on one leg across Canada to raise money for cancer research, dying about midway of his gruelling marathon-a-day journey across the country). His legacy continues to move Canadians to action, I said. And there are so many examples closer to home, I said. Think of the courageous Afghan women who set up a network of underground schools for children in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Or a young Afghan girl who learned four languages fluently in refugee camps in Pakistan so she could petition the international community for help for Afghan refugees. I told them that a Grade 7 Afghan student in Mashad, Iran, had told a researcher colleague of mine "thank you for asking about my problems, but the only one who could solve my problems is myself." Try it! I told the youth. One person can do so much just think what all of you together can do!

It was incredible - the youth at that school set to work with a vengeance. With very limited adult supervision, they replaced broken panes of glass, cleaned out a well full of garbage, painted and cleaned out a storage room (which they later turned into a student-run library), and even repaired a broken, uneven step and floor with cement. I sent them books and posters and articles on Afghanistan, and they prepared a newsletter, which they called Beh Sooye Kamal (my last name means "complete" in Farsi, and their newsletter "Towards Completion" had a very complimentary double meaning). The degree of their response was really overwhelming.

But then, their school was bulldozed. Quite literally. The municipal government decided that they wanted to build a park where the Afghan-run school was housed, and about two months after their youth club activities began, sent bulldozers to tear down the walls around the school. The teachers had to evacuate their students in the middle of class.

I was in Afghanistan when this happened. When I returned to Iran and saw the gaily painted flower on the library wall half-demolished and the youth's hunched over despair, I couldn't look the youth in the eye. I became very conscious of my Iranian-ness, guilty by association with my idiot government.

I didn't (and don't) know if I had done the right thing in building up the hopes of the youth. In some ways, because of my meddling, their fall had hurt much worse. It had seemed so easy to set things in motion for them, but then I wasn't even really able to follow up. By the time the Iranian government began forcibly closing Afghan-run schools (the school in which I was officially working was shut down, too), I was burnt out and crabby and unable to respond. I think that's what bothers me the most. I found myself in the position of an adult who hadn't kept a promise to children, and it wasn't pleasant. I felt responsible for the youth yet also powerless to shield them from injustice and disappointment. It was sobering, this brief taste of the heavy burden their parents continually face.

But I guess I forget sometimes that life goes on, and my concern over my impact in other people's lives is just a manifestation of ego. Earlier in the summer, a pair of boys walked into the youth club office, overflowing with energy at having completed their photography assignment. The youth club was running a photography competition, with the subject matter "Afghans at work," and these two boys wanted to submit their entry. I downloaded the photos they had taken onto the computer, and saw that the photos showed two young men collecting garbage. In all the photos, the faces of the garbage collectors were not visible either because their faces were turned away or something was in the way. I thought the photos were really good, and said so, then teasingly added, hey, I know that guy! Because it was clear that one of the faceless garbage workers was the youth submitting the photo.

The boy in question said: awww!! but took the teasing gracefully as the other boy laughed and punched his shoulder. I then asked the boys if they could explain why they had chosen to take the picture they had. They asked for some time to think about it, and I nodded. They came back later. I said, "well?" The boy who was not in the photo deferred to the one who was, and he looked me straight in the eye, a thin, dark-haired handsome boy with deep lines on his face that I associate with old age, and said, "we took this picture because we want people to know what Afghan youth have to do." There was an honesty and dignity in his straightforward gaze. "This is what I do when I'm not in school. I'm a garbage collector."

I smiled and thanked him sincerely for an excellent entry. And later as I thought about it, I knew what it was that had made this moment so special to me, making all the time, mistakes, and crises linked with the research project worthwhile: I cherish the memory of that other boy, the one who was not in the picture, smiling as his garbage collector friend spoke to me, quietly leaning an arm on his friend's shoulder and seeming as though his chest might burst with pride.

So in the end, all my feelings of guilt are wasted effort. The Afghan refugee youth I worked with in Iran are incredible: resilient and able to cope with a prospectless and threatening future much better than I think I ever could. They certainly seem to be able to handle the disappointments of reality much better than I do, if my rants about US foreign policy are anything to go by (long live idiot governments).

I think these lessons are all part of my maturing process, as I learn to move from the absolute purity of mathematics into the many shades of gray of media and society. I think I have to be more prepared to let go and let people hurt on their own. Life is ugly at times, and who am I to make it not so? Perhaps my challenge is to keep caring, to try and be present, and to listen when things go bad. I can question my involvements in other people's worlds, and I can try to do no harm, but I don't have the ability or even the right to try and make my impact on others uniformly good. If nothing else, I think I have discovered that it is important to trust in the indomitable nature of the human spirit that will survive and succeed despite everything. And in the end, I think I see now that it is really quite insulting to suggest that these proud, resourceful youth couldn't handle anything life chooses to throw at them myself included.

Niayesh Afshordi at February 8, 2005 02:28 PM [permalink]:

A very touching story! God bless you Sarah for all your good work!

It's amazing how oblivious I used to be to the inhumanity of the conditions of Afghan refugees back in Iran, and how clear it's becoming to me since I've left. I would like to know how somebody who is pro-our Islamic government can explain the systematic discrimation and harrassment of a million of our muslim brothers and sisters by the regime.

Atmikha at February 9, 2005 01:43 AM [permalink]:

And God bless you again for breaking the vow of silence!
Just want to say that I'm so glad to hear about what you are doing. I originally found this site because I was looking for something to do for Afghanis, particularly the women. I've sent money and try to raise awareness when I can, but I keep thinking the answer is in something like starting Girl Scout troops. What you are doing seems so exactly right. If you can change people from oppressed victims squatting in tenements into builders of Libraries and dreams, then then they don't need no stinkin' buildings.
When England conquered Ireland,they enforced laws against the indigenous population speaking their own language in public, against congregating, against entering a city. The Irish responded by the formation of "bush schools," and many long, dirge-like songs/chants recounting key historical events, which continue to be passed down the generations
Up the Republic.

Painted face in Austin at February 9, 2005 02:21 AM [permalink]:

I feel terrible reading this story. I don't think we can do much about the government's behavior, since they don't even care about Iranians (and if we could we would have many more things on the list), but we may be able to change people's behavior. Unfortunately, Iranians (most of them) are not very nice to Afghan refugees. I think any Iranian who reads this story (or more or less any story about Afghans that shows our common humanity) will behave differently.

I wonder if the Iranian-born children of Afghans are also deprived from schools in Iran. Do they consider themeselves Iranian or Afghan? What about the gov.?

Niayesh: ANY pro-regime person CAN easily explain the inhumane behavior of the regime toward Iranians, Afghans, Muslems, Atheists, etc., but they WILL not do it. Keywords: "Humanity who?" ,
"donkey", "wednesday". BTW, would you be satisfied if the behavior was humane toward your muslem brothers but inhumane toward my atheist sisters? (You didn't say it, but I want to make sure)

Mohammad Reza at February 9, 2005 09:11 AM [permalink]:

Thank you for starting a discussion on this issue. On several occasions I witnessed naked aggression towards Afghan migrant workers in Iran (I had to go to police station on one occasion, b/c I confronted a guy who was bullying a worker).

Words aside, Iranian hospitality vanished when it came to Afghans. The fact that kids born and raised in Iran never got Iranian citizenship id a jarring example. How do you justify this fact, legal BS aside?

Then there is all this venomous BS about Afghans being resposible for unemployment. A very often heard charge in all countries with large immigrant problems (heard it in US about Mexicans "stealing" American jobs? Go watch a day without a Mexican). But there is not a shred of reality in it.

Arash Jalali at February 9, 2005 01:40 PM [permalink]:

I can see emotions are running high here for Afghans. Here is how I see it:

Immigrants, especially refugees, typically live in substandard conditions to varying degrees depending on the country to which those people have taken refuge. I have heard first hand accounts of the conditions in camps in Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, and the UK and what I heard was unenviable to say the least.

I don't think certain discomforts can be avoided because afterall such people are not meant to enjoy the priviledges of a normal citizen. It is also impossible to stop the flow of "illegal immigrants". This group, due to lacking virtually any civil rights, e.g. employment, insurance, etc., become typically the target of abuse as they are known to avoid seeking any protection from the police. Mostly under financial pressure, they are also very likely to resort to crime. This, even in small numbers, will lead to the creation of a negative image of that community in the minds of the citizens of the host country.

Afghans committed horrendous crimes in Iran. Not that Iranians have not done so themselves (and in fact you should ask the Japanese what Iranian workers have done there), but as a guest, their bad deeds are naturally taken less lightly by Iranians and is taken as the representative and typical behavior of Afghans.

As regards the Islamic Republic's behavior towards the Afghans, I think what they do is basically out of incompetence and not out of racial discrimination. I am equally if not more angry with them for not protecting the rights of Iranian girls who are sold to Afghans by their addicted fathers. There's vitually no legal protection for such women, and there are reported cases in which the so-called Afghan husband buys the girl to share it with several other fellow Afghans.

Please don't get me wrong as I am not a racist but I do believe in the saying that "Charity Begins At Home" and if any of you fellow readers and authors of FToI think you have something to offer to the women in need, even so much as a simple sympathy, there are plenty of them among our own fellow Iranians who can use what you have to offer. The memory of Bam is still very much alive...

Mohammad Reza at February 9, 2005 02:06 PM [permalink]:

Dear Arash,

You raised an interesting point: why Irani's legal system bases the citizenship of women on the citizenship of their spouses? More precisely, why an Iranian woman upon marrying a non-Iranian loses her citizenship? Reversely, a non-Iranian woman must assume Iranian citizenship upon her marriage to an Iranian man before their marriage is legally binding.

The same is not true about men. Isn't it an abject and naked violation of the basic rights of women? I mean, if you are a woman, you do not even have full right of belonging to your country. Some women may say such a country may go to hell. But for Iranian girls, getting dragged around in neighboring countries (non of them a pleasant place to live, based on limited personal experience) is not a very rosy outcome, knowing that you can expect absolutely no help from your useless diplomatic apparatus.

AmericanWoman at February 9, 2005 03:34 PM [permalink]:

Damn, you guys are depressing. Sarah, what is the name of your organization, and is there anything we can do from here?

Amir at February 9, 2005 06:33 PM [permalink]:


I'm afraid to break it to you: You're neither Iranian nor Chinese ... and you should be happy. You're Canadian! An Iranian girl would simply not do what you are doing. She would rather become a doctor, an engineer, or if both of those fail, a mathematics major. Iranians just do not have in their culture the idea of "humanitarian efforts" the way you Westerners do.

All right, some of those who work in Afghanistan and other impoverished places on earth may not do it for completely altruistic reasons. They may have an eye on padding a resume. But alas, the idea of "resume" and "building a career" do not exist in Iran either.

Anyway, I applaud you for breaking free from the world of pure science and engaging in something that has an impact on the lives of fellow human beings. Every human being should be able to feel useful once in a while, or all the money (or all the eternal truth) in the world cannot satisfy her. You have chosen a path that at the end of the day leads you to that rare satisfaction.


poolparast at February 9, 2005 07:47 PM [permalink]:

Amir jaan! goleh khoshgelam! How do you know that all the money or eternal truth cannot satisfy one?

An Iranian Student (AIS) at February 10, 2005 12:52 AM [permalink]:

I do not agree Arash.
Afghans in Iran do not have even the infinitesimal rights and securities that Iranians have under the Islamic regime, but it is not just this regime. Worse is the attitude of the ordinary people against them. It is truly despicable and in no way justifiable.
All in all they are very hardworking people, unlike us lazy Iranians and they end up doing much more benefit than harm (which is not a thing to say about all groups in Iran). More importantly they don't disrupt the structure of Iranian societies, but can be assimilated and are assimilating very easily.

As for crimes, the same is very much true about the rest of the population. Focusin on theirs alone and magnifying it is biased.

Anyway even from a nationalistic point of view, the children born in Iran should be recognized.

The fact that many others especially the women are victims-well, almost everybody is a victime in the present conditions in Iran (almost :))- is no excuse for turning a blind eye on the pain of this segement of the population.

I also ask Sarah, is there anyway people can help on the net by donations or something?

Sarah at February 10, 2005 01:52 AM [permalink]:
Sorry, this will be a long comment. Painted Face in Austin: -Citizenship in Iran depends on the father's nationality. A mixed Afghan-Iranian marriage with Iranian husband will have Iranian offspring, otherwise Afghan youth do not have citizenship. -The youth themselves sometimes feel they are Iranian, sometimes a mix, sometimes Afghan. For certain ethnicities (Tajiks, for example) who physically resemble Iranians and are able to blend in, the feeling of being Iranian might be higher. Religion (Sunni vs. Shi'a) is also a factor. I don't have solid statistics on this. -The government recognizes citizenship of anyone who has proper paperwork. Mohammad Reza: Historically, the Iranian government began as being very generous to Afghan refugees. With the Soviet Invasion, as a matter of principle, the Islamic Republic opened its borders and gave the first wave of Afghan refugees access to subsidized food, housing, fuel, schooling...even during the rationing etc of the Iran-Iraq war. Afghan youth at the school in which I worked were asked to write an essay on the person they most admired, and many wrote about Ayatollah Khomeini, because it was only after his reign, when economic pressures and unemployment grew (and the Soviets were pushed out of Afghanistan), that the government began pushing for Afghan repatriation. Arash: It is true that some Afghans committed crimes in Iran and these were widely publicized, and also drug smuggling across the Iran/Afg border and its associated social problems of heroin addiction etc has been a major issue for Iranian society to deal with, but it is also true that the way in which Afghan children face discrimination is systematic and deliberate. Afghan schools are shut down as a matter of gov policy, not incompetence. I think what the gov policy is stupid, because these same youth will be the educated future leaders of Afghanistan, and pissing them off is short-sighted. Pointing this fact out has occasionally given Afghan-run schools a breather from Iranian officials, but the policy, which I suspect has links to economics of illegal immigrants (keep them oppressed, they work for lower wages) remains. Iranian society is also overwhelmingly discriminatory in my experience. Iranians at best look down on Afghans for not being as cultured. People close to me have used the phrase "don't do that, or the Afghans will eat you" on their children. I look Afghan, so I get some of the "hey Afghani Afghani" calls in the streets, plus more rude things. These are mild examples of what Afghans face in Iran. As they have no rights under Iranian law, it is easy to not pay wages, hike rents ridiculously high, charge extra, etc. I often am asked why I work with Afghans when there are so many Iranians who need help. For me it's a personal choice - 1 in 4 Afghan children die before the age of 5, the life expectancy of Afghans is 43 (perhaps higher now, but no stats are available). I hear what you're saying about the pain in Iran as well, but again, personal choice. I'd love to see a borderless world before I die. American Woman and An Iranian Student: The research I was doing was for Oxford U, but there are some organizations that do work with Afghan women and children. Hami (email is a semi-governmental organization working in Iran for refugees (mostly Afghan, although beginning work with Iraqis as well). HAWCA ( is an organization working with returned refugees and w ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Arash Jalali at February 10, 2005 02:14 AM [permalink]:

Dear AIS,

I did't quite follow what it is that you do not agree with. I too said Afghans do not have the priviledges of ordinary Iranian citizens. To me it is not anything terribly out of the ordinary as it is the case for any foreign national in any other country. As regards particulars, like the citizenship of a child bord in Iran, I do not have much to say that could be backed with solid reasoning (and statistics) for or against this current policy. All I can say is that it is again a policy adopted by many European countries, such as the Netherlands, German, and UK. In fact in the Netherlands, even foreign children adopted by Dutch parents are not automatically awarded citizenship; but again, I don't mean to say the policy is right or wrong for Iran with respect to Afghans just because Europeans do the same.

Dear American Woman,

I don't understand why you find us depressing (if in fact "you guys" also included me). People are of course free to feel or to act charitably towards anyone they choose to but I think one's humanitarian emotions shouldn't merely be stimulated and in turn pointed towards the last news or article one hears or reads. I also believe charity begins, but certainly should not end, at home.

Sara at February 10, 2005 06:00 PM [permalink]:

Sarah, first of all, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and for the clear description of your experiences in the project :)

However, I think I disgaree with your opinion about our government as being "idiot". I think there are different levels of analysis to any case under study. Your analysis, in my opinion, was a very elaborate and detailed description of the personal lives of a people in a particular community under certain circumstances. In your explanations, however, it didn't seem as if you intented to touch on the issue from a "public pulicy" point of view, and in fact I did not see any such analysis.

I would agree with an argument claiming that public policy could benefit from "sociological" (and the like) accounts of different issues. (As I think many of the Western policy circles draw on them extensively; perhaps one reason why they involve their journalists and social scientists broadly in such projects.) I think, however, that accusing a government of being "idiot" just on the basis of a personal-level account and withought studying the issue analytically and from different angles of it, would be unfair.

I think there are many (social, economic, security, ..) sides into this issue. The "human" aspect is just one of these considerations. Some governments may give it more weight, some less. As our government is the central holder of power and as it is first and foremost responsible for the protection/well-being of Iranians, it decides to give priorities as it sees fit.

I think, as Painted face in Austin noted, one of the greatest lessons we could draw from such accounts, would be to enhance our civilian/constituents' awareness of the "human" aspect of the issue of refugees in Iran. Enhanced awareness, "over time," could lead towards any government of our country's giving more weight to such considerations. "As maast ke bar maast." Let's be fair ;)

AmericanWoman at February 11, 2005 02:39 AM [permalink]:

Sarah, how does the contract for media and gender tie into afghanistan?
Arash, my earlier comment was not meant personally. It just depresses me to contemplate the fate of women in the world. Even here where there are so many options it just can all seem so hopeless. All you can do is what you can do,though. Better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.

Sarah at February 11, 2005 04:22 AM [permalink]:

I would agree that much more than a few personal stories need to be taken into account when examining government policy. I think I addressed some of your points in my last comment, explaining briefly why I think the policy is short-sighted and against Iranian interests - see Feb 10th, 1:52am. I didn't get into a full analysis of the different issues of government's policy in my piece because it was about the effects of those policies on a fairly large segment of its target population in Iran, based on 9 months of intensive research. I would consider that a valid contribution to any discussion of public policy.

I disagree with your implication that the government's only concern should be for the well-being of Iranians, and its priorities are justified through this. I believe injustice is everybody's concern. Violence against women and children, and disregard for human rights impact everyone. In my mind, state-sponsored violence and injustice qualifies any government, whether the US or Iran, to receive the label "idiot." Call it my personal opinion rather than a scholarly categorization if you prefer.

American woman:
I am working on improving the gender-sensitivity of local Afghan media. Some of the past research I have done here is at, at the bottom.

Take care,


Sara at February 11, 2005 04:01 PM [permalink]:

Thanks Sarah :)

Yeah, I had read your point on the history of the treatment of this case.

The things I just wished to add for the moment are that: I didn't say it "should be". I said "it is". Again, I think there are different layers of "justification" for different sets of actions at different circumastances and at different times. It needs a thorough and "systematic" study and analysis.

heydarbaba at March 31, 2005 04:09 PM [permalink]:
Sarah, I like to make couple of comments on this story. One relating to the public policy and the other public attitude. It is an undeniable fact that among some Iranians there is an anti-Afghan bigotry, sorry to say this exists among the Iranians who live in and outside of Iran. I don't mean to generalize it and scold ALL the Iranians but I will also say that I am not aware of how wide spread this bigotry is. I have witnessed many times when Iranians have talked about Afghans with a typical ignorance-is-bliss-swagger in Iran and in US in places that there are big Afghan communities such as Fremont, California. You see my generation of Iranians had no such a feeling toward Afghanis, we didn't have any good or bad feelings toward them. This bigotry started with the invasion of Afghanistan by the soviets. For Soviets it was very important that Ayatollah Khomeini not condemn that invasion and not take any position on that. So, in middle of the night they sent their ambassador to the Ayatollah Khomeini's house to let him know that the Afghan government had asked the Soviets to come in and help them defeat the insurgents, the terrorists.!!! Ayatollah Khomeini had told the ambassador that there are two types of liars, one who knows he is lying and the one who doesn't; you belong to the first group. At this point Soviets had asked him they wanted him not to take any public stand against that invasion/invitation. That day Ayatollah Khomeini in his speech condemned the Soviet invasion. What did the Soviets do? They sent their boys to work in Iran, namely the Hizbe Tudeh, and to some extent Fedaee and Mujahedine Khalgh,MKO (Rajavi's group, before they had gone commercial). Tudeh Party was a well organized party with their publications and headquarters all over Iran then and so was the MKO and Fedaees. They began an Afghan-bashing campaign and sorry to say that they did a damn good job. They portrayed these Afghan refugees as bunch of uncultured, rough and tough, criminal minded people who were ruining Iran and our culture. As far as I know these three groups declined to condemn the Soviet invasion at the time and I am not sure if they ever condemned it later. They would take a crime committed by an Afghan refugee and show case it and milk it as much as they could. This was the origin of Anti-Afghan bigotry in Iran.(the members and leadership of these three groups are now in Europe and US as refugees and they go through the same misery they caused for Afghans in Iran, what goes around has definitely come around for them.) This doesn't help the Afghans situation in Iran. But as you said Iranian government did a lot for Afghans even at a time when they were facing more than a million refugees from war zone and even Iraqis and Kurds who had fled to Iran. Another very important issue you mentioned briefly in your article was the fact that Iran received and still receives very little money from international community who decided to put politics ahead of the very same human rights and human dignity and welfare they preach now with a deafening sound. This anti-Afghan bigotry among those Iranians who have it and foster it, is sick and despicable. Whatever good things that happened to Afghans in Iran, (and as you said it is plenty) was done as a matter of our Islam ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]